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How Our Smartphone Obsession Became the Norm

Getting lost in the glow of a smartphone screen has become a cultural certitude.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

We’re living in the era of human connection. As of 2015, nearly two-thirds of American adults (64 percent) now own some manner of smartphone, up from just 35 percent in 2011. The revolution in mobile technology also created a revolution in connectivity. It’s been almost a decade since Steve Jobs unveiled the first generation iPhone in San Francisco, and civilization has never been the same. According to the Pew Research Center, some 87 percent of American adults use the Internet, up from 14 percent in 1995; what was once considered Internet addiction in 1995 has become normal behavior thanks to the ubiquity and necessity of our modern Internet-connected livelihoods.

But every new era of connectivity also brings new ways of ignoring each other, and getting lost in the glow of a smartphone screen has become a cultural certitude, a modern manifestation of the civil inattention. According to a new study in Computers in Human Behavior, “phubbing” — snubbing someone in a social setting in favor of a phone — has evolved from a psychological habit and sign of technological maladjustment to an acceptable social norm.

The new research, conducted by two psychologists at the University of Kent, suggests that there are some psychological antecedents to smartphone users’ phubbing behavior. The researchers surveyed 251 smartphone-using participants about how often they have phubbed friends or acquaintances, and how often they’ve experienced smartphone-related snubbing in their daily life.


Computers in Human Behavior)

The researchers discovered several psychological antecedents strongly related to smartphone addiction and, in turn, phubbing. A general lack of impulse control was an obvious culprit, as is its more specific cousin in Internet addiction, or “maladaptive pattern of Internet use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.” Like gambling, the lure of constantly updating feeds can make the smartphone a treasured avatar of digital satisfaction that consumes all other behavior. Similarly, a general fear of missing out on other activities has been long associated with persistent smartphone use since “anxiety about being left out of the information circuit also plays a crucial role in seeking out social networking services, need satisfaction, life satisfaction, and mood,” the authors write.

But these innate psychological antecedents don’t necessarily make phubbing a norm; the behavior persists because it’s become socially acceptable. While Internet addiction and FOMO predicted smartphone addiction—which in turn predicted phubbing—the researchers found that study participants perceived phubbing as normative if they themselves had been snubbed.

“[P]hubbing may have become the norm as a result of both observed and personal behavior,” the authors write. “People are phubbed, but they are also phubbers. In an environment where people are constantly switching from being the protagonists and recipients of this behavior, our data suggests that phubbing becomes seen as the norm.”

In short, bad behavior begets bad behaviors in a vicious cycle of strategic reciprocity: If you’ve ever been ignored by a friend who just can’t tear his eyes away from Twitter, you’re likely to pull out your phone and do the same. It’s possible to imagine phubbing as a social virus, an evolutionary variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma where participants keep choosing the rudest possible strategy, forcing others to do the same in a race to the bottom of smartphone etiquette.

“People … assume that others phub in the same way that they do themselves, therefore perpetuating the behavior,” the authors write. “Further, when people experience phubbing and notice the behavior occurring frequently around them, they may be likely to conclude that this behavior is socially acceptable…. People, in response to discontented actions, tend to commit retaliatory behavior in response.”

So when in the smartphone’s conquest of our attention did phubbing stop being an irregular, unsavory habit and become instead an acceptable social behavior? If the acceptability of phubbing is directly correlated to the experience of being phubbed, then an increasing number of smartphones should indicate a higher probability of being snubbed in the wild. Arguably, the tipping point probably came in 2013, by which point more than 50 percent of American adults owned a smartphone, the sharpest increase in ownership in recent memory, according to the Pew data. Further, Google searches for “smartphone addiction” increased rapidly around 2012 and 2013, suggesting broader awareness (and, perhaps, anxiety) over phubbing. And usage has only increased since then: As of 2015, some 68 percent of adults in advanced economies now own a smartphone (although global smartphone sales fell last quarter for the first time in history).

The changing acceptability of phubbing is an important reminder that the behavioral changes wrought by technology, good or bad, are always decried as fundamentally debilitating and dangerous before they become generally accepted. Novels created “reading lust”; the telephone was a source of addiction; even the Internet began its perception in the popular culture as a series of back alleys for socially inept weirdos.

Phubbing may be a net loss for human interaction and the art of conversation, but it’s as much the unnatural result of a psychological irregularity as every other behavior that’s pinned on the Internet.